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Batting Around: False start in Biloxi

Shuckers' Opening Day up in air after ballpark construction delays
February 13, 2015

Welcome to Batting Around, a monthly curation and analysis of Minor League Baseball off-the-field news from around the country, locally sourced whenever possible. If you have an item to contribute for inclusion in a future edition, please email Ben Hill.

One thing is certain -- the Biloxi Shuckers will play their inaugural season in 2015.

What isn't certain is when, exactly, the Shuckers will play a ballgame in their hometown of Biloxi. After a prolonged delay, construction on the team's home of MGM Park began in earnest in August. While progress has been swift since then, the (approximately) $36-million, largely city-funded facility won't be ready for the Shuckers' scheduled April 20 home opener.

On Feb. 5, the Shuckers announced their "provisional plans" for April and May. The Double-A Milwaukee Brewers affiliate's April 20-24 series against the Jacksonville Suns will be played in Jacksonville -- the Shuckers will be the "home" team. And from April 30-May 4, the team will play a five-game series against Mobile in their former digs at Joe Davis Stadium in Huntsville, Alabama. (The Shuckers' previous incarnation was as the Huntsville Stars, who operated from 1985-2014.) The Shuckers return to Huntsville for a 10-game homestand May 16-25, while the May 6-10 series against the Mississippi Braves will be played at the M-Braves' home of Trustmark Park (with the Shuckers again serving as the home team).

Therefore, the earliest possible date that the Shuckers could play in Biloxi would be June 6, for a five-game series against the Mobile BayBears. Should MGM Park still not be ready by then, additional games could be moved to Huntsville. Per Mark McCarter of AL.com, Shuckers' ownership has a "lease with the city of Huntsville for the use of Joe Davis Stadium through the end of this season."

Repercussions

It is certainly in everyone's interest for MGM Park to be completed as soon as possible. Per the terms of an agreement between the Shuckers and the City of Biloxi, the city will pay $10,000 to the team for each home game played elsewhere. This currently leaves Biloxi on the hook for an additional $150,000 outlay, and possibly more given that a June 6 opening date is not yet a certainty.

The Shuckers players and coaches, meanwhile, face the unenviable situation of living out of a suitcase for at least two months. In this regard, their situation resembles the challenges faced by the 2012 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. As a result of an extensive year-long stadium renovation, that squad played its entire 2012 campaign on the road (with the majority of home games shifted to Rochester's Frontier Field).

The Shuckers' front office, headed by former Huntsville Stars general manager Buck Rogers, must somehow balance the demands of marketing a new franchise while coordinating staffing and promotion of the games played in Huntsville. And lastly, when the Shuckers play their home games in the stadium of an opposing team, that club's front office must take on the demands of additional home games. A particularly onerous example can be found in Jacksonville, as the Suns now will open the 2015 campaign with a massive 20-game homestand.

The Shuckers' situation, difficult as it may be, is only a short-term concern. One of the items on the team's long-term agenda is for MGM Park to host international exhibition games featuring, most notably, a team from Cuba. Mary Perez of the Biloxi Sun Herald reports that Tim Bennett, who is part of the Shuckers' ownership group, has been negotiating for months with representatives from Havana's Industriales franchise. This is part of a larger "BIG" (Biloxi International Games) initiative, which also would include teams from all over the world. These global exhibitions would not involve the Shuckers.

Hartford to break ground

Regular readers of this column have come to expect -- nay, demand -- news regarding the ongoing effort to build a new Minor League facility in Hartford, Connecticut. This facility, located in the city's "DoNo" (downtown north) neighborhood, will serve as the home of the relocating New Britain Rock Cats. While this has been a continually evolving and often contentious process, significant progress has been made.

On Tuesday, Steven Goode and Jenna Carlesso of the Hartford Courant reported the City of Hartford, the Rock Cats and project developer DoNo Hartford LLC reached an agreement that will "allow the city occasional free use of the stadium, stipulate that 'Hartford' be in the team's name and require that tickets be affordable to families." More from the Courant:

"Mayor Pedro Segarra said Tuesday that the terms of the agreement with [team ownership group] Connecticut Double Play LLC include 30 percent revenue sharing for all non-baseball events at the ballpark, a project labor agreement, a guarantee of a Double-A Minor League Baseball team for the term of the lease and hiring preference for city residents and minority- and women-owned businesses for all direct and indirect contract work."

The next day, it was announced that a stadium groundbreaking was scheduled for Feb. 17. A new website -- HartfordPlaysBall2016.com -- also was launched, which included information about an upcoming "Name the Team" contest.

Potomac goes it alone

With very few exceptions (one being that of the West Michigan Whitecaps' Fifth Third Ballpark), the Minor League stadiums that have been built over the past two-plus decades have relied on full or partial public funding. But in Woodbridge, Virginia -- home of the Potomac Nationals -- team owner Art Silber has been involved in a long effort to get a stadium built with private funding. This facility would replace 31-year-old Pfitzner Stadium, which is considered outdated.

While Silber's dream is at least several years away from fruition, partial naming rights to this as-of-now-theoretical facility have been sold to "founding partner" local plumbing and electrical company F.H. Furr. Last month, Silber explained the team's cart-before-the-horse approach to Hugh Rist of insidenova.com:

"Nearly every other ballpark has been built with some sort of public funding. In every other case, in selling the naming rights, it's always been done after the ballpark's been built. This is sort of a chicken-or-egg-first thing. We've come real close the last two years. The support we've gotten the past few years from the community as a whole has been tremendous. We remain very optimistic [the stadium] will eventually be built."

In brief

  • The 10-team Rookie-level Appalachian League is considering adding two more franchises. (Burlington Times-News)
  • While it will be used for Minor League Baseball purposes for at least the first two months of the 2015, Huntsville's Joe Davis Stadium might not be long for this world. (AL.com)
  • The civic leaders behind Project Jackson, which includes a new ballpark for the Augusta GreenJackets, have chosen a general contractor. (North Augusta Star)
  • Agon Sports and Entertainment, which also owns the GreenJackets, has officially acquired the Boise Hawks. (Boise Hawks)
  • Significant renovations to the Memphis Redbirds' home of AutoZone Park, resulting in a reduction in park capacity, are now underway. (Memphis Redbirds)
  • Construction on Monongalia County Ballpark, which will host the New York-Penn League's brand-new West Virginia Black Bears as well as West Virginia University baseball, is proceeding apace. (wvusports.com)
  • The failed attempt to build the Hagerstown Suns a new ballpark in Fredericksburg, Virginia, has resulted in a lawsuit. (Fredericksburg.com)
  • Pedro Bragan, whose family has owned the Jacksonville Suns for over 30 years, may sell the franchise to Akron RubberDucks owner Ken Babby. (Jacksonville.com)
  • The Jamestown Jammers played their final season in 2014 and moved to Morgantown, West Virginia. Taking their place at Russell E. Diethrick Park? The Jamestown Jammers. (Ballparkbiz.com)
  • Golf star Bubba Watson now owns a minority share of his hometown Pensacola Blue Wahoos. (MiLB.com)
  • The Beloit Snappers' Board of Directors rejected a buyout offer from former board president Brian Christianson. (Ballpark Digest)

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.